Race and ethnicity

Although the racial and ethnic diversity of the UW graduate student population has been increasing slowly over the last 20 years, the campus remains relatively homogenous. One reason is that efforts to enhance the pipeline of students at primary and secondary levels preparing for higher education have been well-meaning, but sporadic and limited. Disciplinary programs are still learning how to expand their prospective graduate student outreach efforts. As a result, minority students can feel marginalized, not only in the student population but in how research problems and curricula reflect — or fail to reflect — their scholarly influence, experiences and educational goals.

We need more role models of faculty and students who engage in multicultural scholarship, research and teaching so as to make diversity awareness and support structures in graduate training more explicit.

Role models

When students enter the complex structure of a research university, they can experience feelings of isolation or become overwhelmed. One of the first things students do is seek out people with whom they can identify in order to temper those feelings. This search can be challenging for students of color. The lack of minority faculty members makes it difficult for graduate students to find an adviser or mentor in their fields. Ethnic minorities often seek role models — regardless of race — who have “paved the way,” who work through the dissonances between their home communities and the academic community, and who can help students do the same. When one of the few faculty of color leaves the UW, minority students feel the impact.


A stereotype that students of color worry about is whether other students and faculty will have low expectations of them. White faculty and peers may unwittingly avoid reaching out to, or worse, end up discouraging students of color in seminar or lab interactions. This stereotype can make minority students feel awkward when seeking advice and guidance. Another harmful stereotype is that “all ethnic minorities are alike” or have the same goals for graduate school and experience the same challenges. These assumptions compromise collegial interaction and undermine students’ individual needs and talents.

Lack of an explicit support system

At least two kinds of support are necessary for students, and in particular students of color, to succeed. The first is sufficient financial support and the second is environmental support, including mentoring and networking. Departments should not assume that students automatically “know” how to navigate the system or pursue support. Traditionally marginalized students in higher education may have fewer direct channels to such sources of assistance. If workshops on these issues are not offered regularly in departments, or not publicized well, then opportunities remain hidden and students miss out.

Exclusion from support networks

Underrepresented students on fellowships may be inadvertently overlooked for teaching and research assistantships, and, as a result, experience fewer opportunities for collegial, career-building interactions with faculty and peers. They also miss out on how teaching and research assignments can enhance graduate training and strengthen their curriculum vitae.


  • Reflect on how you have been socialized to think about race and ethnicity and make efforts to increase your awareness, socially and academically. Attend a diversity forum on campus, and bring ideas for community building back to your department.
  • Inform yourself about scholarly advances in your discipline resulting from the inclusion of multicultural research and perspectives. Think about the challenges these advances pose to your discipline and to scholars.
  • Build more explicit connections to faculty of color in or outside your department and expose your students to their work and ideas.
  • Understand students’ individual needs. Students from different race and ethnic groups face issues and experiences differently than white students. At the same time, avoid assuming that all students from a given racial or ethnic group have the same perspectives or needs.
  • Be aware of negative classroom dynamics and the ways they may affect the experiences of all students.
  • Explicitly recognize each minority student’s unique strengths and scholarly promise.
  • Talk to students about their strengths and help them improve in other areas.
  • Offer minority students a breadth of possibilities for scholarly interactions: leading discussions, collaborating on projects, designing workshops and presenting research at campus forums or disciplinary meetings.
  • Make sure your department offers at least one workshop per quarter on financial support, mentoring, community building, success strategies and other issues of importance to all students, particularly those of color.
  • Use email, newsletters, or posters to publicize the Graduate School’s and other units’ resources.
  • Help your department create a policy of providing assistantships to all graduate students, including students of color on fellowships. Broad exposure to different kinds of academic work is just as important as deep exposure to a research problem. Use informal assignments to broaden graduate students’ experience.
  • Familiarize yourself with minority colleagues and white faculty in and outside your department who may help extend all students’ networks.
  • Learn about national networks for underrepresented minorities in your discipline and participate in them.